Thursday, May 20, 2010

DVD Look: Judge

Judge is a short, interesting little OVA from 1991 that really surprised me. There have been very few reviews of this OVA ,which CPM silently put out on DVD in 1998 and then again in 2000, but the ones I've read made me not think too highly of it at all. And you'd have to look far and wide to even find someone who's seen it. But I really enjoyed it. And I think there are others out there who would like this as well. Now it probably won't be your new favorite anime or anything, but it's a great way to kill 45 minutes.

Anyway, mine as well get to what it's about. Hoichiro Ohma is your standard Japanese salaryman, working for a bunch of corporate executive scum, and lives life quietly enough with his girlfriend, Nanase. However unknown to everyone else, underneath his quiet persona he is the "Judge Of Darkness". He is somewhat of a supernatural vigilante. The "Judge of Darkness" seems to be a set of powers and a title passed down along the generations, to people who want to crack down on criminals who escape judgement in the human world. The "Judge of Darkness" also seems to aim to get revenge for the dead, who he feels have been wronged (i.e. people who have been killed and their murderer has escaped or avoided justice in the human realm for whatever reasons). The Judge also uses a supernatural book, which reveals to certain people who could be guilty of crimes and avoiding justice. And Ohma has no qualms about taking justice into his own hand, and outright attacking the guilty people and killing them. Which leads to some of the great ol' ultraviolence. We then learn that one of Ohma's bosses who was recently sent to South America on business, ended up being killed by some guerrilla warfare. Ohma goes to the funeral with his co-workers, and other boss Kawamata, and thinks nothing of it. But later that day while using his book, and he discovers that Kawamata is probably the one responsible for the other boss's death. So Ohma as the Judge attempts to get revenge, but to his surprise ends up being thwarted by a Defense Lawyer. This lawyer also seems to have some supernatural powers. This sets us up for a battle between the two, that will last to the end of the film. And of course they do go to "court" as it were.

Now this film is entirely serious, and asks you to take it seriously as well. Which is going to be a problem for some, because when you really think about it the entire premise is just incredibly silly. And at times it can be cheesy and really corny. But this OVA is an example of what you can do with a silly premise. It doesn't have to turn into pure crap. This anime manages to be a great horror/thriller, that is in the same style as the American TV series Tales from the Crypt or the anime Petshop of Horrors . And the OVA it's self is often times quite smart. I was not at all expecting any intelligence in this anime, and to see some really surprised me. For one the dialogue is very well written, most of the time. It avoids lazy exposition, that's very tempting, and often happens in anime with short running times. This instead relies on great conversations between characters that never feel forced. They never stupidity talk about things they should automatically know, just to clue us in on something. They say enough that we can figure out what is going on, but it doesn't seem unnatural. Of coruse this leads to a few things never being truly explained, but that's for the better. That being said, there are some lines that are just plain laughable like for example "The Penal Code of Darkness". Ohhh spooky! Not! Feel free to roll your eyes at that one. But you have to take the good with the bad I suppose. I really enjoyed the cat and mouse game between the defense lawyer and the judge (who acts more like a prosecutor really. When they go to trial there are 10 "Supreme Court Judges" who rule over the case instead). While this thrilling psychological (and physical) fight between the two doesn't last long, it is very exciting. Another part of the OVA I enjoyed was the very realistic relationship between Ohma, and his girlfriend Nanase. I found they had a great relationship, and the romance between the two is cute. Of course no OVA from the early 90's would be complete without a sex scene, but it didn't seem too explicit, nor was it uncalled for. And I laughed at the parrot they had that would repeat their moaning and sex chatter aloud the next day.

There is some actual depth in here as well. While not exactly Kino's Journey or Haibane Renmei here, this anime has some profound things to say. While more often then not these ideas are thrown aside for some good supernatural fights, it does attempt to make some statements. There is a real attempt at philosophizing here, ideas of why we should or shouldn't defend criminals in court are tossed around (I admit lightly). And there is also some metathinking about mankinds need or desire to judge it's self. Which I found entirely interesting (Which may be because I'm a double major in Jurisprudence and Political Science and wish to go to Law School...but I'm sure someone else out there will like this too). There are some real good quotes here by the defense lawyer, "Who are we to decide what is right and what is wrong. What arrogance is this that allows us to pass judgement on another". and "Only God can be the judge of man's behavior". The show is quick to point out the flaws and dangers that go along with being a bit too eager to take justice into our own hands. But along with this comes the humanly need and desire to punish the truly guilty who avoid the law. I felt drawn in here, at one hand rooting for the Judge to rid us of criminals, but eager to make sure only the guilty get punished. I am reminded of Light's desire as Kira to rid the world of criminals in Death Note. And the OVA is incredibly smart here, keeping who is responsible for the death of Ohma's boss a mystery up until the end of the OVA. Is Kawamata the horrible excuse of a human being we think he is or not? Was he willing to have his best friend killed for his career? Or was it really just some bad luck and his friend really was just killed by the guerrillas? And when the dead guy himself takes the stand at this trial, he may surprise you with what he has to say. Now someone will surely go watch this now and then say to themselves I'm thinking way too much into this. And that may be true. But I believe that you'll get out of this, what you put into it. And I feel there is definitely at least an attempt at some philosophy here, although it's often thrown aside for other things. Now if this works or not, that is going to be entirely subjective.

The production values here are about average for 1991. The art is a little too simple for it's own good, but still has a cinematic and gritty style to it that I liked. The character designs are good, with realistic characters that all look distinct (even the minor characters). The guys look like real salarymen, and the women look attractive yet realistic. Kawamata is the odd man out here though. He is bug eyed, and kind of goofy looking, at yet somehow fitting. The monster and demon designs are actually incredibly well done. I was afraid we would have another Psychic Wars on our hands here (by which I mean poorly designed, and laughably bad looking monsters and demons). But thankfully it seems this anime had a decent budget, and it was spent on creating some really creepy and disturbing looking demons, monsters, and spirits. The backgrounds look alright, but they aren't detailed enough in my opinion. And the animation is about average for an OVA of this time, neither impressing nor disappointing. The music too, does not really standout, but does it's job well enough. The dub is another old Manga Video UK dub, which CPM and Manga UK split the cost of. It was dubbed in London, England by a British and Canadian cast, putting on American accents. And it was directed by one of my favorite ADR Directors, Michael Bakewell (see my reviews on A Wind Named Amnesia and Cyber City). In short the dub does not disappoint. While it shows it's age a little bit, I do suggest watching it. There's very few if any awkward lines here, and the acting is quite good overall. I also found it was incredibly well cast. Ian Tyler for example fits Ohma perfectly. He has a mousey voice, that's not really annoying, and sounds exactly like what I'd imagine this salaryman would sound like. My only problem here, is Tyler often talks way too fast, trying to get all the dialogue in. With a little re-working of the script, maybe this could have been avoided. But he's still really good. Sadly when he's talking as the Judge, he does this odd thing with his voice to try and disguise it, and it sounds really corny. This reminded me of the new Batman movies with Christian Bale doing that stupid thing with his voice when he's Batman. In both cases it's a vigilante trying to disguise their voice, and in both cases it just does not work. Luckily the Judge doesn't talk too much. Nanase is played by Barbara Barnes, who I just loved in this role. She's a very good actress, and really impressed me here. And I loved her voice! However she does have a high pitched voice, that will probably bother some people. I found it fitting, but then again I loved Elisa Wain in Patlabor and Maze, who's high pitched voice is akin to nails on a blackboard for most people. So my opinion on this kind of thing is very "out there" if you will. Peter Whitman plays Kawamata and he completely nailed it! He's perfect here! At times he sounds cowardly, at other times up to no good, and other times very businesslike. His voice sounds just like any professional businessman would sound, and he does a great job overall. Another thing I'd like to point out here is all the extras and small roles are very good. They all sound very natural, and this makes the anime feel like a live action movie.

Sure ok I'll admit it's kind of (ok very) silly, and yes sometimes things happen really fast for almost no reason once or twice. And yes it feels like something a bored Japanese Salaryman would dream up while making photocopies or something ("I wish I could be a Judge of humanity!! Punish criminals that get away , all while still working this job on the side! And bang the hot girl at the office too!" ). But sue me, I liked it a lot. It had a great cat and mouse aspect to it (that lasted way to short), and I liked the rather interesting statements it made. In the past while talking about anime I've casually mentioned that a show "walks the line between high and low brow". And what I mean by that is that the show is clearly not some elegant, sophisticated work of art. But on the other hand it's not a dumb, offensive piece of trash either. It does have things to say, and it's very smart at times. But along with the great insight, comes trashy (yet fun) ultraviolent scenes and some silly scenes. And as far as shows that walk this line between high and low brow go, Judge is the poster boy. At times incredibly silly, sometimes dumb, and features some fun ultrviolence, but at other times insightful and very smart. It's thrilling, has some great revenge scenes, and good ideas behind it. It's an odd OVA, no denying that. But one I recommend.

Prede's Raiting
4/5 Stars